Sunday, October 05, 2008

two women in two books

Philippine literature must be in good condition these days. Considering the tremendous outputs by Filipino writers, in various national or local publications and competitions, from across the country, we can support the idea that a sector of the public has finally gotten the much needed practice and leisure of reading—after a long literary drought.

But reading, in an unsatisfactory note, has its biases. People have its preferences on what to read and what not to read. Politics has even marred literature that what’s usually considered serious and worthy are those often praised by established (or commercial) critics. Approach a passerby at the street or a blue-collar employee around town and ask what Philippine novels they know. For sure, the answer will either be Noli Me Tangere or El Filibusterismo.

Jose Rizal’s books may be considered mature and important for they have been introduced to many in high school, to enhance the understanding of the past’s social setting, but how about the recent ones? Those writings that, though not widely circulated like the Noli or El Fili, have substance that equals the value of many social-realist and “mature” literature? Indeed, it is sad to say that literature right now is immediately associated with entertainment, the kind of entertainment that has no value, no factor for knowledge development, and has no relevance whatsoever. In short, they are not “real.” If a certain work presents a great deal of highfalutin, fantastical element interwoven in a political and domestic melodrama, then this fresh work would fall under the category of popular culture because, as what many “scholarly thinkers” would deem, it would not last through time or it would only gain its fifteen minutes of fame. It is not really bad to label a work as popular. What’s really bad bad is the misconception that anything popular is only worth a grain of salt and nothing more.

In this paper, I will put side by side the books Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal and Salamanca by Dean Alfar. Both are written by authors in different period; one is already touted a classic in the canon and the other a maverick in mainstream literature. Through this, the differences and the resemblances can easily be pointed out and that prejudices toward new literature, that is literature written early this decade, will be removed from many people’s minds. To add more grounding in this broad topic, let us focus on the two female protagonists of the books: Maria Clara and Jacinta Cordova. Through these two characters, issues on art as entertainment, feminism, and stereotypification in the context of popular culture will be discussed.

Means of Entertainment
The sole reason why most of the Filipino audience, especially the young ones, only know Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo as the only novels in the Philippines must be the seemingly lack of knowledge about the newer writings. Up to this date, many institutions are still confined to these canonized works, not open to recent ones that may still cater the information and enlightenment the former can provide.

Salamanca, an example of a social and magical-realist work, is one book that can be studied in many universities’ literature classes. The plot of its story is well-conceived and the barrio’s local color is believable; it even has characters as quirky as William Shakespeare’s plays. Definitely, the author has good narration of the events that leaves an imprint in our mind’s eye. And then add a pinch of magic into these and the integrity of the work is questioned. Why so? Because there’s no room for magic in the Philippines? Wrong. It is because most Filipino people are just overly conditioned by practicality and realism that it is very hard for them to accept something that goes beyond human aptitude.

But let us take a look into Jacinta, a native Palaweña with a powerful beauty that turns walls of different variety into glass. Though she has this gift, she is just like any other girl capable of both affection and apprehension. She is just as humane as the character Maria Clara, who, in one chapter of Noli, instantly goes into fits of childlike enthusiasm upon hearing her lover arrive in her place and suddenly goes out of the ordinary when she surprises her aunt by leaving immediately when the morning mass is over, not indulging in any prolonged devotion that is just heavily practiced in her times.

At present, we cannot deny that novel ways of attracting audiences is really needed, that there are many literary techniques that are as effective as using the common handling of a good story. Forget the touch of the clichéd realism, what is more important right now is the gist of the story. Basically, it all boils down to the writing skill and idea of the writer, not on the method— because how would one explain Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s inventive and fantastical tome One Hundred Years of Solitude winning the Nobel Prize Award for Literature? Why, some people must have noticed Alfar’s Salamanca for its prominence and cultural significance because in the 2006 Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, it won Grand Prize for the English Novel.

Well, anyone can label such work as something for entertainment but we cannot deny that works such as Salamanca has sense. The novel by Dean Alfar is one work that is not only created for the mere reason of making an effective potboiler but also making a reader think. At least, it doesn’t bore anyone.

On Feminism
Our country’s people, undeniably, are too steeped on realism that borders on the stereotype. The affluent ride the latest automobiles or enjoy the privileges of what excessive money could bring while the poor settle with their worn-out tsinelas or enjoy what morsel they could possibly find. Filipinos are often living with this mentality that it is hard to completely get the supposed settings or standards off their heads. Likewise, the world of literature has its fair share of typecasts. Romeo is a pursuing romantic while Juliet is a delicate maiden; the slender Don Quixote is an ambitious dreamer; and even the countryside-raised Oedipus is a brave and brawny man. The list could go on and on.

And insert Philippine Literature. In the canon that has shaped what available writings we read these days, Jose Rizal’s works surely cannot be disregarded. And what more, his have characters that totally become the staple icon, the original copy of what many writers of today have in their literary works. It’s hard to say that there still something original that has been made. This may be an understatement for our national hero, that his masterpieces have spawned people to create, to gain the spark of creativity from his novels—that her fragile Maria Clara in Noli Me Tangere might be the ancestor of Dean Alfar’s Jacinta in Salamanca. Well, these are mostly my opinion, of course.

But wait, who actually stated that Maria Clara is a fragile creature? Where did we get that notion? When did this start? For some time, the various feminists of the world could be the culprit. In an essay entitled Hamlet and Maria Clara, written by Nick Joaquin, he said that the Rizal heroine has been constantly receiving a “thrashing” by “furious feminists,” pulling her down as a symbol. In the most direct explanation Nick Joaquin disagrees, if not condemns, the idea of Maria Clara as a dainty, soft-spoken, timid convent girl. To put her into such description would be like, to quote Joaquin’s words, announcing “…that Snow White had been lynched by Negroes, or that Mariang Makiling was being hunted by the vice squad.”

Nick Joaquin certainly read well Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. In the essay, he is not contradicting the stereotypical image of the female protagonist nor creating his own brand of criticism but, rather, he is simply illuminating the evidences present in the book that Maria Clara is not actually what most people think she is.

Even if there is some mentioning that Maria Clara is sensitive, we could translate this as a sign of passion and love for those she considers dear important to her, not exactly a sign of weakness. This black legend about the “weakling” Maria Clara has already been nailed on many people’s mind, further planted deeply by high school teachers collecting her as the epitome of a respectable well-bred Filipina but is, ironically stupid, debunked by “scholarly” feminists thinking that she doesn’t rightfully stand the position of a fighter, a super being. But if these people meticulously read Rizal’s tome, they must immediately eat their words. Actually, there are a lot more things to say but these are enough same with Jacinta.

In Dean Alfar’s Salamanca, though not entirely taken from the words of feminists, many readers react to the attitude of Jacinta the same way the character Maria Clara received. The story’s hint of “greenness” and so-called deviance, from same-sex relationships to human beings copulating in midair, are also misjudged. If those who have a closed mindset would, again, say that the feminine sensibility is attacked, I can defend this that those acts are not a display of promiscuity but a show of real human reaction, a natural response in the purest form of exaltation. Surely, the feminists must have missed a lot of interesting characteristics of Maria Clara when they were reading the Noli. And if ever they, too, consider the work of Alfar as problematic, these feminists must reread their literature.

No matter what issues that would sprout from a book, may it create issue about gender criticism, social constructs, or the definition of art, it remains a book and just a book until it is read.

Popularity, really, is not just an important factor to generate income but an efficient way of attracting more people to invest on what is new, what is out of the ordinary. That’s why we cannot blame Dean Alfar’s magical take of a barrio setting being published into actual form—it is revolutionary, especially for the Filipino susceptibility.

In this time and age, “freshness” does not only relate to the yuppies, to the power of money, or to pop culture, but also to the increasing interest of experimentation. Though this may be the fad for now, let us not entirely disregard some old works (such as the Noli Me Tangere of Jose Rizal) that, nonetheless, can be considered a proponent to what is Philippine Literature today. Like any other things, the past shapes the present, and the present gives hints of the future. As of the moment, let us just enjoy what available work we have. Whether what period a piece of literature is written, it is not (should not be) the main concern. It is the reading—the hows and the whys and the whats.

The real deal is this: it is basically how one work recreates a life subject effectively, how one work reflects an everyday matter into a magnified lesson for the reader to enjoy and learn. This way, more people would acknowledge that a single word in a book, old or not, is life printed and then published.

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